Wired Magazine on “The Cyborg Advantage”

Clive Thompson writes in Wired:

The most brilliant entities on the planet… Are neither high-end machines nor high-end humans. They’re average-brained people who are really good at blending their smarts with machine smarts.

The thing is, this sounds a lot like our lives. We now engage in cyborgian activity all day long. We use Google to find information, rely on Facebook or Twitter to tell us about people we’re interested in, and harness recommendation tools to suggest news stories and cultural events.

These days, though, there’s a big debate between folks who love our modern, digitally enhanced lifestyle and those who are unsettled by it. The chess example shows us why there’s such a gap. People who are thrilled by personal technology are the ones who have optimized their process — they know how and when to rely on machine intelligence. They’ve tweaked their Facebook settings, micro-configured their RSS feeds, trained up the AI recommendations they get from Apple’s Genius or TiVo.

And crucially, they also know when to step away from the screen and ignore the clamor of online distractions. The upshot is that they feel smarter, more focused, and more capable. In contrast, those who feel intimidated by online life haven’t hit that sweet spot. They feel the Internet is making them harried and — as Nicholas Carr suggested in The Atlantic — “stupid.”

This is reminiscent of the notion of mediation described by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who has had a great influence on developmental and educational psychologists (as well as on other social sciences).  Vygotsky argued that humans interact with the world indirectly; between us and the world are culturally-situated artifacts such as language, cultural customs, and more concrete things such as machines.  These artifacts mediate our interactions with the world and with each other.  Artifacts don’t simply allow us to do, they also influence how we think and how our cognitive skills and abilities develop. Indeed, much current research into human-computer interaction ultimately boils down to issues of mediation.

This article (PDF) by Mamour Turuk of the University of Newcastle focuses on applications of Vygotskyan theory to language instruction but provides a good overview of Vygotsky’s ideas, including mediation. This Google book version of a text by Vygotsky expert James Wertsch also is a great introduction to Vygotskyan theory.

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